Where Starmer’s Speech Got it Right – and Wrong

Labour's new leadership team is right that the party needs a more coherent message – but by sidelining policy and a socialist vision, they risk leaving Labour looking like it's fighting for nothing.

For many on the Labour Left, this week’s speeches and announcements from the party’s truncated online conference have been a major disappointment. Popular policy areas such as the Green New Deal appeared to be awkwardly avoided by Keir Starmer, and little concrete vision was offered to either party members or the public.

Before Starmer’s leadership speech, a LabourList article announced that the new leadership is positioning itself as the party of ‘opportunity, family and security.’ The traditional red backdrop of conference was replaced by the Union Jack, and frontbench MPs like Lisa Nandy stressed the importance of patriotism and Labour’s commitment to ‘standing up for British interests.’ Starmer’s keynote speech repeated these themes ad nauseum, emphasising a decisive break with Jeremy Corbyn, with repeated references to ‘credible opposition’, ‘rebuilding trust’, and being ‘serious about winning.’

Labour’s new general secretary David Evans has long advocated the use of ‘values modes’ for assessing political behaviour, over and above a traditional focus on policy, economic class or other demographics. ‘Values modes’ – described by Evans as a ‘psychographic tool’ –establishes ‘core motivations’ and splits the population into three categories: ‘pioneers’ (driven by ethics), ‘prospectors’ (driven by personal success) and ‘settlers’ (driven by safety and anxiety). Principally, Evans believes that Labour’s biggest failing has been its over-success amongst ‘pioneers’, and believes that significant losses have been made amongst ‘settlers.’

Viewed in this lens, the lack of policy from this week’s conference makes more sense, and reveals a core difference in the implicit motivations between Labour’s competing factions. For the Labour Left, ‘policy’ represents the actualisation of principle. It reflects concrete and material commitments made to the public, allowing society to collectively expand its notion of the possible.

Seen as such, policy commitments are more than merely the sum of their parts – they are part and parcel of the democratisation of society and the economy. Discussing policy introduces participants to political power, and specific public commitments create accountability. As the Left’s programme entails a radical overhaul of existing power structures, policy discussions reflect the view that through debate and discussion, millions may alter their perceptions on the present way of doing things.

If these values are not alien to the Labour Right, then they are severely underrepresented. Participation is not a fundamental driver for their politics, and the range of their political ambition often varies from moderate to no change. Without a solid idea of what a Labour victory should mean (short of themselves being in control), a focus on ‘values’ provides a terrain to mobilise. Such a perspective plays into existing beliefs – and reflects the view that a significant change in public opinion can only be gained through psychological or emotional manipulation.

In practice, there is evidence to defend both styles of politics. And it is certainly true that in the 2019 general election, Labour’s policy-heavy communications failed to resonate with voters. Our ‘answers to everything’ manifesto often gave the impression that impossible promises were being made, and that far from engaging voters with proper content, they were being taken for fools.

This reaction should give pause for thought to socialists, as it reflects the polar opposite of what we want to convey. There is truth in the position that identity, loose cultural affinity and personal ethical and moral notions determine voting decisions, often superseding a straightforward comparison of party manifestos. This is not a fact that should be rejected by the Left, but incorporated into a more nuanced analysis.

In May 2018, the research and strategy group Britain Thinks published the results of three separate focus groups held in Southampton and Barnet, involving self-employed or white collar “swing” voters. The intention was to uncover opinions on the Labour Party’s policies under Jeremy Corbyn, and the results were stark.

In a Southampton focus group, participants who were strongly in favour of pay caps and the nationalisation of water, energy and rail industries were asked whether the policies belonged to the Conservative or Labour Party. Three of them quickly replied Conservative. On discovering their error, opinions on the policies rapidly reversed and the same ideas held to only moments before were dismissed as “rubbish” by the same individuals.

In a separate focus group, participants questioned Labour’s nationalisation proposals, but did not clearly understand what they entailed. “It’s going private, isn’t it? We don’t want that,” replied one, while another asked if it would be funded by private investors. Once again, when it was revealed that nationalisation meant utilities no longer remaining in private hands, opinions shifted. “It sounds like a massive financial cost,” said one. The same focus group agreed that Labour pandered to the biggest audience and “say what you want to hear” without thinking “where’s the money coming from.”

Such examples may inspire dismay, but they do not vindicate the argument that policies are entirely ineffective tools for political communication. Well-delivered policies consistently helped to shape and mould the British political landscape over the course of Corbyn’s tenure, transforming the scope of what is possible and popularising concepts of municipal and national ownership that had been written off for decades. Short videos from Momentum and Labour on issues such as rent and private railway companies were viewed millions of times, helping to spark national conversations about our country’s structural problems.

What was missing from the Corbyn-era communications agenda was a strategy. There was no consistent, reliable drip-feed of core messaging known to resonate and unite our electoral coalition. By comparison, when we look at the successful Conservative campaign, the lack of consistency in our cause becomes woefully clear. On the 22nd December, the Financial Times published a crowing article entitled ‘How the Tories Got it Done.’ The article revealed the origins of the ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan to have been from one of the Conservative’s regular focus groups held in Bury, Greater Manchester. The article said that:

In the end, the key phrase materialised from a conversation among half a dozen people in the hotel. “Voters were chatting about Brexit and there was a [group] of about four to five people who started talking about ‘getting it done’,” one strategist in the room recalls.

Repeated constantly throughout Boris Johnson’s campaign amidst the noise of endless Labour policy announcements, this slogan encapsulated a simple line of unified messaging which appealed directly to the entire Tory voter base. It also reinforced a consistent strategy, held in unity by the Conservative Party, which had been deployed ruthlessly over the preceding months.

Since day one in Downing Street, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings had single-mindedly focused their energies on uniting the Brexit vote. Consistent attempts to frustrate the passage of the Brexit Bill only consolidated this position, allowing for the development of Boris’ public persona as a crusading knight for Brexit in the public eye. A Westminster official is quoted as saying that

Boris had to be seen to do everything to get Brexit through. When the October 31 cliff-edge arrived, it had to be very clear to voters that he had done everything humanly possible, almost bar going to prison, to get us out of the EU.

From this, a campaign insider could remark that “we had essentially won before the campaign began.” Undoubtedly, the Conservative campaign was a masterclass in strategic communications. Refusing to be sidelined by the erratic daily fluctuations of the Brexit debate, repetition and consistency allowed Johnson and the Tories to embody the maverick, hard-nosed and principled values which were reinforced by their external communications. By contrast, Labour’s avalanche of detail was an open invitation for a hostile press to pick apart policies almost indefinitely.

Unlike the Tories and Brexit, we swarmed voters with ideas whose foundations had not effectively been laid over the preceding few years. Unlike the Tories, our external image had been dragged from pillar to post on a range of issues ranging from antisemitism to national security. And when the election came around, it was not explicitly obvious to many voters that our core policies around properly funded public services and investment in national infrastructure and decent jobs were what we stood for.

This mattered. Well-delivered policies can have a massively transformative impact on public perception. But they must be a piece of a broader conversation which understands, and is sensitive to, its audience. We can change perceptions with policy and debate – but not overnight, and not on every issue at once. Where the new Labour communications strategy is right is focusing on lines of unity between different target demographics, but the cult of ‘values’ cannot be allowed to strangle a discourse on content, principle and policy altogether. What needs to be present is a far more multidimensional understanding of how to present our movement to the outside world.

To view socialists by our new general secretary’s ‘value mode,’ our core motivations remain incredibly popular and inclusive. Our principles – that dignity and self-respect are incompatible with huge social disparities in wealth, or rights between people – are popular. Our beliefs – that creativity, morality and human life is deformed through the logic of the profit system, and that we can order society in a better, more effective way if we plan it together – are still accepted by millions, even if they reject us.

If we stand any chance of long-term success, we must develop long-lasting narratives, archetypes, and slogans which encompass these universal values. Our message needs to be consistent and patient, while avoiding comfortable clichés. It shouldn’t be hectoring, patronising or hostile towards those we wish to convince – and it must be comprehensible, consistent and patient with our audience. But it can be done.